Pavements and Sidewalks

May 6, 2014 by jewish journeys

Not exactly the stuff of dreams, great poetry or any of the other more lofty forms of human expression. It is hard to imagine an “Ode to the Pavement” or “On a Grecian Sidewalk”. The first line? Perhaps it would read “Oh hardened surface upon which I wander” (or possibly, wonder). Or even “Well trodden path which feet have you felt over many a year?”

It does not work and yet I began thinking about pavements just yesterday as I walked along the side of a road in the town of Tucuman, or more precisely San Miguel de Tucuman, a town in the interior of Argentina. Not a very special pavement, not one which might give way to a scene in which the protagonist might break out into song with something like “I have often walked down this street before, but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.” Just a pavement, a little dirty, with uneven paving, straight in places and broken in others. Unkempt might be the word to describe it. Every now and then a dangerous “shoe mine” left behind by a small animal in this place where “poop and scoop” is not part of the culture, but rather “weave and beware”. Not a pavement from the Upper East Side (where of course it becomes a sidewalk) where I spent three of my last four years. On the Upper East Side there is a constant struggle to ensure everything is clean and well kept. I sometimes thought that if it were possible to inject Botox into the pavements of the Upper East Side it would happen.

And I began thinking about some of the pavements I have walked along over the past years of my travels and whether there is any relation between the type of pavements in a city and cultural and political questions.

In Berlin for example, the pavements are really beautifully kept, with appropriate access for young parents with baby carriages as well as for the disabled with wheelchair access. And of course there is the unusual extra on German pavements, small brass plaques with names of Jews who once lived adjacent to the particular pavement and sometime between the early 1930s and the early 1940s disappeared. Pavements as … memorials or as reminders or even holy ground? Can one stand on a brass plaque? Can one rest one’s shopping bag on a brass plaque? What does one do when one’s dog deposits on the brass plaque? Does the pavement become a tourist stop? Perhaps it is worth a mention in the Rough Guide or the Lonely Planet? Does one leave flowers? Stones? Or is it “so long ago it is time to let go”?

In Lithuania in my grandfather’s shtetl of Kupershik there were no pavements really. Just dusty paths which are easy to sweep clean. They are of course susceptible to the imprint of footsteps, heavy treads, dragged feet, but when the rains come the footprints are washed away. Even on Synagoga Street where the wooden Synagogue once stood, there are no remains of the ashes from the torching of the synagogue in 1941 by “you know who” helped by “you know who”. No ashes from the wooden building and no ashes from the people in the building who were herded inside to solve a local “problem”. Thankfully my grandfather was long gone from Kupershik, but other Resnicks died that day with thousands of other local worshippers (and those who never set foot in a Synagogue as they had embraced Bundism, Socialist Zionism or another of the many ideological ideas which were floating around this already diverse world which died in the 1940s).

And then of course the pavements of Oxford Street and Fifth Avenue which apparently if well watered sprout very expensive shops where it is possible to overpay to your heart’s desire. Great streets where the windows are to die for, especially around that most spiritual of dates in the Judaeo-Christian calendar, Shoppingmas. There are a few places I have walked where the windows adjacent to the pavement are really like a touch of wonderland, the Garden of Eden, the real Promised Land. It is like this in Rome, Paris, Milano, London, NY, Berlin (which now has two mentions). Ironic really as perhaps the places which need this wonderland might be Kinshasa, Havana, Freetown or Harare.

To tell the truth I began to think about this yesterday for a very different reason. I do not have a shopping gene, or if I do it is recessive. Rather, after walking on these rather unkempt pavements, I had a meeting with some of the young people from Habonim Dror in this very ordinary town. But there was nothing ordinary about them. They sparkled. Dazzling me more than the windows of Harrods or Bergdorf Goodman. They were thirsty for knowledge and filled with a passion for learning and education. Three of them were preparing an activity for the young people they work with (they are 16 and 17, the young people they work with are 9 to 14). Today is the eve of Yom Hashoah and they were preparing for an activity to commemorate this day. I saw before me, just beyond the unkempt pavements, in the Deportivo (the Jewish Country Club), small posters each with a different phrase: Rwandan Genocide, Armenian Genocide, Genocide of the Indigenous Peoples of the Argentine, the Shoah and more.

Laucha, our very impressive Shaliach (Emissary) here, started a conversation which my poor Spanish prevented me from being a part of. Here on a slightly lazy Shabbat afternoon, near the Zumba class in the Deportivo, just a few yards from the unkempt pavements of Tucuman, a group of wonderful young people were discussing really seriously the thinking of Professor Yehuda Bauer one of the most important Holocaust scholars alive today. He talks about what the Shoah shares with other genocides and what makes it different from other genocides. it was, says Bauer, the only time that there was a systematic attempt to rid humanity of a particular people for no other reason other than that they were who they were. There were no completing claims over land or political domination; there was no conflict over economic power. They were other. They were us. The Shoah according to Bauer was unprecedented in its scope and its rationale, but not unique in its goals.

So, on this Yom Hashoah, today in Resistencia, no longer in Tucaman, I look at the pavements and for some reason the beautiful phrase from Psalm 121  comes to mind:

אשא עיניי אל ההרים

מאין יבוא עזרי

I look up into the hills

From where will my help come


And it feels more powerful than ever. And the pavements look different. The question becomes how do those who walk on pavements behave towards each other, and not what do the pavements look like? The way we walk is important. Do we walk with each other; who leads, who follows? What do we notice and what do we ignore as we walk along? The quality of the pavement is surely determined by how we walk on it.


by Julian Resnick




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